Why Do Bodybuilders Tan?

And a behind-the-scenes look at the process

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: March 11, 2021

If you’ve ever seen a bodybuilding contest, you probably noticed how deeply tanned the competitors are. Like so tan that they look like bronze statues!

And it’s not just the heavyweight male bodybuilders. It’s men and women at every level and in every category.

But why do bodybuilders tan in the first place? Has this just become the norm in fitness competitions, or does it actually help to improve your physical appearance?

As a former physique competitor, I’ve had a behind-the-scenes look at the entire process. And I’m going to share how it works, as well as the competitive tactics behind tanning in bodybuilding.

Why Do Bodybuilders Tan

Image courtesy of @dp_fit

The Tanning Process

In the days leading up to the contest, bodybuilders go through a strange ritual. But this isn’t your beauty salon spray tan. It’s a process that can take skin from the palest white to the darkest bronze.


The first step is exfoliation, or removing the excess dead skin cells from all over the body. This leaves skin smooth and ready to hold the tanning product. It’s recommended to use a natural exfoliant mixture like olive oil and sugar while showering.


Next is the shaving of all body hair – and I mean ALL. Removing hair is another step to help the tan stick. For men with thick body hair, shaving also shows more definition on stage.


Finally, the day before the show, it’s time to start tanning. Usually, the tanning product is a liquid mixture that gets sprayed or rolled on. The contest organizers set up a designated area for competitors to receive their tan.

In the tanning area, competitors strip down and enter a small booth where a staff member coats their entire body with the spray. This only takes a few minutes, plus a few more to dry.

After the first coat, competitors can dress and go about their business for the rest of the evening. But they usually have to return early on the morning of the contest for a second coat.

When the tanning is complete, competitors are covered in a somewhat sticky film that tends to rub off or streak if it gets wet. In the event that the tan gets smeared or smudged, there are touch-up staff members backstage.

Each competitor pays $100 or more for their tan. All this makes you wonder even more why bodybuilders go through so much trouble to get a tan.

So now let me finally answer the question, “why do bodybuilders tan?”

Why Do Bodybuilders Tan?

Long before the advent of tanning beds or bronzers, bodybuilders knew that tan skin looked better on stage. In the golden era, Arnold and company laid out on the beaches of Venice after their workouts.

Now bodybuilders turn to spray tanning to amplify the effect. It helps them show up on stage and accentuates the full muscles and sharp lines they worked so hard to create.

So let’s take a look at 5 specific ways that a tan helps bodybuilders show off their best physique.

1. Prevent Wash Out From Bright Lights

It’s important to realize that bodybuilding shows are held on stages with blindingly bright spotlights. And a light skin tone reflects most of that light back to the judge’s eyes.

This effect is called wash out because it effectively erases the separation between muscle groups that contestants need to place well. Whereas a deep-colored skin absorbs more light, making muscles more visible.

Why Do Bodybuilders Tan Light Reflection

A spray tan makes the skin darker so it absorbs more light.

2. Create The Illusion Of More Definition

In addition, a spray tan can help finer details stand out. Such as muscle striations and the intricate feathering of the obliques.

Again this is due to the darker color. But also, the spray tan tends to accumulate in crevices like the creases between abs.

Since bodybuilders in all categories get judged on definition and low body fat, a tan can help them look just a little bit leaner.

3. Even Out Skin Tone

Unless you’re using a tanning bed, most people have subtle skin tone variations between exposed areas and those covered by clothes. In some cases, you may even have pronounced tan lines.

Another benefit of a spray tan is that it creates a uniform skin tone across the entire body. This is more visually appealing and desirable for displaying the physique.

4. Hide Skin Imperfections

Along with evening out skin tone, the spray tan also helps to hide blemishes. This includes anything that stands out against your normal skin color such as freckles, moles, acne, or even tattoos.

5. Because Everyone Else Does

Lastly, spray tanning has become the norm in bodybuilding competitions. So even if you didn’t really want to, you almost have to in order to keep up with your competitors. And so you don’t stand out in a negative way during the comparison rounds.

After The Contest

Most people might not realize that a bodybuilding contest can last several hours. There are dozens of categories and sometimes hundreds of competitors. With pre-judging in the morning and the finals in the afternoon or evening.

So at the end of the day, it’s a huge relief to finally was off the oily spray tan casing. Except it doesn’t all wash off! 😂 Competitors are left with an orangish tint for at least a few days after the show.

While this level of tanning may look and sound absurd, it’s one of the smallest sacrifices bodybuilders make to look their best. The real effort comes in the gym and in the kitchen.

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In a competition where judges scrutinize your physique, decisions about placing can come down to the smallest details. And a dark uniform tan gives you a slight boost in definition and muscularity that could improve your placing.

After reading about the spray tanning process, you probably aren’t in any hurry to try it. Although commercial spray tans are not as elaborate. And you can get some of the same effects with a more natural tan.

However, if you choose to get a tan from the sun or a tanning bed, make sure you limit your exposure to harmful UV rays.

For more information on all things bodybuilding, check out some of my related articles below.

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